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A Conversation With Chris Vernon

Matt Fishman

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Chris Vernon (AKA Verno) is Sports Talk in Memphis. His quick wit, strong opinions, parody songs, and vast sports knowledge carry his show. Interestingly enough, his show isn’t even on the radio but still dominates the Memphis sports scene. We talked this week about his start in the business and why he left radio to be a star in podcasts and on the internet.

Matt Fishman:  So how did you get your start in sports radio?

Chris Vernon:  In college I was trying to pick a major and took a class called “Introduction to Broadcasting” and since it was a small school I was able to call the basketball games and do a weekly TV show. I did internships at a couple of different places. I interned at KFNS in St. Louis and loved it. The next summer I interned in media relations at the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx (Minor League baseball team) and I hated it. I decided that I wanted to be in radio so I moved to Memphis, because it was the closest big city. 

I tried to get a job anyway I could to get my foot in the door. I called the local sports station—Sports 56 WHBQ and told them what I’d like to do and was willing to start on the ground level. They needed a board op who could do updates on the :20s and eventually we’ll get you on the air on Saturdays and then I had to board op Sunday night football and I begged him to let me go on after Sunday Night Football.  The PD said, “I don’t give a crap what you do. Nobody’s listening anyway and you’re not going to have a producer!” So I did the show all by myself, I played the music, took the calls and hosted the show.

MF: How did you develop your style and get your legs under you as a host?

Verno:   It easily took years. A big moment for me was when the XFL was in Memphis and at the game I met “JT The Brick.” He was asking me questions about me and my show. JT says “What’s the name of the show?” It was something like Sports Weekend. JT said “That name is terrible. Change the name to The Chris Vernon Show. If you want to be a name, you want to be a personality; you want to be a star? Name it The Chris Vernon Show. 

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JT said, “What do you talk about on the show?” I told him it was a recap of the week and weekend in sports.  JT said “Nobody cares. Anybody can look that up. Recaps, stats, figures are boring. Do you take callers?” I told him that nobody called in, nobody’s listening. JT said “I promise you that people are listening. They just have no reason to call. 

He then gave me a great example, he said–“We’re in Memphis right? (This was early 2000’s) John Calipari is only using Memphis as a stepping stone. Does that bother anybody that he’s using this job as a stepping stone? He’s not going to be here long term.” So I’m listening to him and I go on the air that Saturday and ask “Does it bother anybody that John Calipari is just using Memphis as a stepping stone?” My phones rang off the hook for three straight hours.  JT’s premise was “Your opinion matters. They want to hear what you think about something.” At that point I found my bearings and what I wanted the show to be.

MF: So you’ve been in Memphis for 18 years and I’m sure you’ve had offers to go to larger markets, what has kept you in Memphis?

Verno: By the time I got my bearings and figured out what I was doing, I was already making enough money that I wasn’t enthused about taking a pay cut to go to a bigger market. And I was happy where I was. When I was coming up the internet started to explode. I can see that it is making the world a smaller place. It used to be that you only knew the guys who worked in the big cities. Mike and the Mad Dog were in New York and Mike North was in Chicago. You had to be in the big cities to make the big money and to get known.  Then sports stories and audio started spreading on the internet. So I understand that if I do what I do that people will find me. The internet started to make the world a small place and people became aware of what I was doing. It wasn’t necessary for me to go to a bigger market. I was able to do SiriusXM right out of Memphis and my Ringer show right out of Memphis.

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MF:  In 2016 you and ESPN 92.9 couldn’t come to terms and you chose to leave radio and work for Grind City Media. What happened?

Verno:  Here’s the truth—I went to Entercom. I was #1 for four years and when it came time for my contract to come up they only talked to me until a few days before it would expire.  I asked for a certain amount of money and they came back and said this is the most we can offer. My thing was “Why am I the one we are having this discussion over? What is going on with radio right now? The only thing I could control was the show and the ratings.  I had done that over and over again. We’re getting to the point that they are haggling with me? This must be going the wrong way. 

At the time I had a six year old and a three year old. The reason it went down the way it went down is they thought they had me over a barrel. This is the bad side of corporate radio. It’s why they didn’t offer until the last minute and had a take-it or leave-it attitude. They know I’ve got two kids in schools that I’m paying for and parents who I’ve recently moved here to help take care of them. They know I didn’t want to move. Plus, if I stayed here, I’d have to sit out a six month non-compete.

That obviously angered me so much that I just walked away.  I had been talking to Bill Simmons and The Ringer and I knew I couldn’t do the show as it was constructed and do The Ringer. So when the Grizzlies were putting together the idea of Grind City Media, not only was I going to be better off, but  I believed in what they were doing and were going to support what I was doing with The Ringer. Then they brought in Mike Wallace from ESPN, Alexis Morgan, and Lang Whitaker.

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MF: Are people listening live or to podcasts nowadays?

Verno:  As the years have passed, people would respond to me hours or a day later on social media about something I said on the show. I realized that the world had gone “On Demand”. They weren’t on my time anymore. Plus, I have a young son who doesn’t know what time anything is on because it’s all on demand. What happens to the next generation? The idea of being on at a certain time has become devalued. The other thing that I noticed was the effect the internet had on Newspapers, Shopping, and Television with cord cutting. So I thought, is radio the only thing that’s going to be immune to this?

MF: So are you suggesting the internet has been a crucial part of your career?

Vernon: I think especially in media it’s important to think ahead. Bill Simmons was so far ahead of anyone in the podcast game. Look at what he’s pulling off in the podcast industry. I’m so proud to work there.  People are choosing to listen to these shows. Since I do NBA podcasts I get tweets from all over the world. I get tweets from Russia, Brazil, and Japan—everywhere!! You’ve also started to see it with sponsors where internet and internet reach is something that’s become really important. The internet presence is now essential. You could always explain this to a younger business owner but now you’re even getting it from the older business owners.  Now there’s a lot of businesses who don’t send a red cent outside of social media advertising.

BSM Writers

The Future Is Now, Embrace Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible.

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This week has been a reckoning for sports and its streaming future on Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+, ESPN+, and more.

Amazon announced that Thursday Night Football, which averaged 13 million viewers, generated the highest number of U.S. sign ups over a three hour period in the app’s history. More people in the United States subscribed to Prime during the September 15th broadcast than they did during Black Friday, Prime Day, and Cyber Monday. It was also “the most watched night of primetime in Prime Video’s history,” according to Amazon executive Jay Marine. The NFL and sports in general have the power to move mountains even for some of the nation’s biggest and most successful brands.

This leads us to the conversation happening surrounding Aaron Judge’s chase for history. Judge has been in pursuit of former major leaguer Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs hit during one season in American League history.

The sports world has turned its attention to the Yankees causing national rights holders such as ESPN, Fox, and TBS to pick up extra games in hopes that they capture the moment history is made. Apple TV+ also happened to have a Yankees game scheduled for Friday night against the Red Sox right in the middle of this chase for glory.

Baseball fans have been wildin’ out at the prospects of missing the grand moment when Judge passes Maris or even the moments afterwards as Judge chases home run number 70 and tries to truly create monumental history of his own. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand has even reported there were talks between YES, MLB, and Apple to bring Michael Kay into Apple’s broadcast to call the game, allow YES Network to air its own production of the game, or allow YES Network to simulcast Apple TV+’s broadcast. In my opinion, all of this hysteria is extremely bogus.

As annoying as streaming sports is and as much as I haven’t fully adapted to the habit yet, Amazon and Apple have done a magnificent job of trying to make the process as easy and simplified as possible. Amazon brought in NBC to help with production of TNF and if you watch the flow of the broadcast, the graphics of the broadcast, NBC personalities like Michael Smith, Al Michaels, and Terry McAuliffe make appearances on the telecast – it is very clear that the network’s imprint is all over the show.

NBC’s experience in conducting the broadcast has made the viewing experience much more seamless. Apple has also used MLB Network and its personalities for assistance in ensuring there’s no major difference between what you see on air vs. what you’re streaming.

Amazon and Apple have also decided to not hide their games behind a paywall. Since the beginning of the season, all of Apple’s games have been available free of charge. No subscription has ever been required. As long as you have an Apple device and can download Apple TV+, you can watch their MLB package this season.

Guess what? Friday’s game against the Red Sox is also available for free on your iPhone, your laptop, or your TV simply by downloading the AppleTV app. Amazon will also simulcast all Thursday Night Football games on Twitch for free. It may be a little harder or confusing to find the free options, but they are out there and they are legal and, once again, they are free.

Apple has invested $85 million into baseball, money that will go towards your team becoming better hypothetically. They’ve invested money towards creating a new kind of streaming experience. Why in the hell would they offer YES Network this game for free? There’s no better way for them to drive subscriptions to their product than by offering fans a chance at watching history on their platform.

A moment like this are the main reason Apple paid for rights in the first place. When Apple sees what the NFL has done for Amazon in just one week and coincidentally has the ability to broadcast one of the biggest moments in baseball history – it would be a terrible business decision to let viewers watch it outside of the Apple ecosystem and lose the ability to gain new fans.

It’s time for sports fans to grow up and face reality. Streaming is here to stay. 

MLB Network is another option

If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of watching the Yankees take on the Red Sox for free on Apple TV+, MLB Network will also air all of Judge’s at bats live as they are happening. In case the moment doesn’t happen on Apple TV+ on Friday night, Judge’s next games will air in full on MLB Network (Saturday), ESPN (Sunday), MLB Network again (Monday), TBS (Tuesday) and MLB Network for a third time on Wednesday. All of MLB Network’s games will be simulcast of YES Network’s local New York broadcast. It wouldn’t shock me to see Fox pick up another game next Thursday if the pursuit still maintains national interest.

Quick bites

  • One of the weirdest things about the experience of streaming sports is that you lose the desire to channel surf. Is that a good thing or bad thing? Brandon Ross of LightShed Ventures wonders if the difficulty that comes with going from app to app will help Amazon keep viewers on TNF the entire time no matter what the score of the game is. If it does, Amazon needs to work on developing programming to surround the games or start replaying the games, pre and post shows so that when you fall asleep and wake up you’re still on the same stream on Prime Video or so that coming to Prime Video for sports becomes just as much of a habit for fans as tuning in to ESPN is.
  • CNN has announced the launch of a new morning show with Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlin Collins. Variety reports, “Two people familiar with plans for the show say it is likely to use big Warner Bros. properties — a visit from the cast of HBO’s Succession or sports analysis from TNT’s NBA crew — to lure eyeballs.” It’ll be interesting to see if Turner Sports becomes a cornerstone of this broadcast. Will the NBA start doing schedule releases during the show? Will a big Taylor Rooks interview debut on this show before it appears on B/R? Will the Stanley Cup or Final Four MVP do an interview on CNN’s show the morning after winning the title? Does the show do remote broadcasts from Turner’s biggest sports events throughout the year?
  • The Clippers are back on over the air television. They announced a deal with Nexstar to broadcast games on KTLA and other Nexstar owned affiliates in California. The team hasn’t reached a deal to air games on Bally Sports SoCal or Bally Sports Plus for the upcoming season. Could the Clippers pursue a solo route and start their own OTT service in time for the season? Are they talking to Apple, Amazon, or ESPN about a local streaming deal? Is Spectrum a possible destination? I think these are all possibilities but its likely that the Clippers end up back on Bally Sports since its the status quo. I just find it interesting that it has taken so long to solidify an agreement and that it wasn’t announced in conjunction with the KTLA deal. The Clippers are finally healthy this season, moving into a new arena soon, have the technology via Second Spectrum to produce immersive game casts. Maybe something is brewing?
  • ESPN’s Monday Night Football double box was a great concept. The execution sucked. Kudos to ESPN for adjusting on the fly once complaints began to lodge across social media. I think the double box works as a separate feed. ESPN2 should’ve been the home to the double box. SVP and Stanford Steve could’ve held a watch party from ESPN’s DC studio with special guests. The double box watch party on ESPN2 could’ve been interrupted whenever SVP was giving an update on games for ESPN and ABC. It would give ESPN2 a bit of a behind the scenes look at how the magic happens similarly to what MLB Tonight did last week. Credit to ESPN and the NFL for experimenting and continuing to try and give fans unique experiences.

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BSM Writers

ESPN Shows Foresight With Monday Night Football Doubleheader Timing

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7 and then 10 on their primary channel.

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The Monday Night Football doubleheader was a little bit different this time around for ESPN.

First, it came in Week 2 instead of Week 1. And then, the games were staggered 75 minutes apart on two different channels, the Titans and Bills beginning on ESPN at 7:15 PM ET and the Vikings at the Eagles starting at 8:30 PM on ABC and ESPN+. This was a departure from the usual schedule in which the games kicked off at 7:00 PM ET and then 10:00 PM ET with the latter game on the West Coast.

ESPN is obviously testing something, and it’s worth poking around at why the network wouldn’t follow the schedule it has used for the last 16 years, scheduling kickoffs at 7:00 PM and then 10:00 PM ET on their primary channel. That’s the typical approach, right? The NFL is the most valuable offering in all of sports and ESPN would have at least six consecutive hours of live programming without any other game to switch to.

Instead, they staggered the starts so the second game kicked off just before the first game reached halftime. They placed the games on two different channels, which risked cannibalizing their audience. Why? Well, it’s the same reason that ESPN was so excited about the last year’s Manningcast that it’s bringing it back for 10 weeks this season. ESPN is not just recognizing the reality of how their customers behave, but they’re embracing it.

Instead of hoping with everything they have that the customer stays in one place for the duration of the game, they’re recognizing the reality that they will leave and providing another product within their portfolio to be a destination when they do.

It’s the kind of experiment everyone in broadcasting should be investigating because, for all the talk about meeting the customer where they are, we still tend to be a little bit stubborn about adapting to what they do. 

Customers have more choices than ever when it comes to media consumption. First, cable networks softened the distribution advantages of broadcast networks, and now digital offerings have eroded the distribution advantages of cable networks. It’s not quite a free-for-all, but the battle for viewership is more intense, more wide open than ever because that viewer has so many options of not just when and where but how they will consume media.

Programmers have a choice in how to react to this. On the one hand, they can hold on tighter to the existing model and try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. If ESPN was thinking this way it would stack those two Monday night games one after the other just like it always has and hope like hell for a couple of close games to juice the ratings. Why would you make it impossible for your customer to watch both of these products you’ve paid so much to televise?

I’ve heard radio programmers and hosts recite take this same approach for more than 10 years now when it comes to making shows available on-demand. Why would you give your customers the option of consuming the product in a way that’s not as remunerative or in a way that is not measured?

That thinking is outdated and it is dangerous from an economic perspective because it means you’re trying to make the customer behave in your best interest by restricting their choices. And maybe that will work. Maybe they like that program enough that they’ll consume it in the way you’d prefer or maybe they decide that’s inconvenient or annoying or they decide to try something else and now this customer who would have listened to your product in an on-demand format is choosing to listen to someone else’s product entirely.

After all, you’re the only one that is restricting that customer’s choices because you’re the only one with a desire to keep your customer where he is. Everyone else is more than happy to give your customer something else. 

There’s a danger in holding on too tightly to the existing model because the tighter you squeeze, the more customers will slip through your fingers, and if you need a physical demonstration to complete this metaphor go grab a handful of sand and squeeze it hard.

Your business model is only as good as its ability to predict the behavior of your customers, and as soon as it stops doing that, you need to adjust that business model. Don’t just recognize the reality that customers today will exercise the freedom that all these media choices provide, embrace it.

Offer more products. Experiment with more ways to deliver those products. The more you attempt to dictate the terms of your customer’s engagement with your product, the more customers you’ll lose, and by accepting this you’ll open yourself to the reality that if your customer is going to leave your main offering, it’s better to have them hopping to another one of your products as opposed to leaving your network entirely.

Think in terms of depth of engagement, and breadth of experience. That’s clearly what ESPN is doing because conventional thinking would see the Manningcast as a program that competes with the main Monday Night Football broadcast, that cannibalizes it. ESPN sees it as a complimentary experience. An addition to the main broadcast, but it also has the benefit that if the customer feels compelled to jump away from the main broadcast – for whatever reason – it has another ESPN offering that they may land on.

I’ll be watching to see what ESPN decides going forward. The network will have three Monday Night Football doubleheaders beginning next year, and the game times have not been set. Will they line them up back-to-back as they had up until this year? If they do it will be a vote of confidence that its traditional programming approach that evening is still viable. But if they overlap those games going forward, it’s another sign that less is not more when it comes to giving your customers a choice in products.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: Sunday Ticket Has Problems, Marcellus Wiley Does Not

Demetri Ravanos

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On this episode of Media Noise, Demetri is joined by Brian Noe to talk about the wild year FS1’s Marcellus Wiley has had and by Garrett Searight to discuss the tumultuous present and bright future of NFL Sunday Ticket.

ITunes: https://buff.ly/3PjJWpO

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3AVwa90

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3cbINCp

Google: https://buff.ly/3PbgHWx

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3cbIOpX

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